Is the use of arguments from authority “irrational”?

Basically, I would say no, since there are topics for which it is meaningful and rational to resort to arguments from authority. To name an example, if I want to know how you feel, the best thing to do is to ask you.

But even if you don’t agree, let me point to the distinction between

  • the use of such arguments as a way to close a discussion (e.g., “It is the case that X, because an authoritative source said it”)
  • the use of such arguments as part of a discussion or as opening a discussion (e.g., “An authoritative source tells us that X, how shall we understand it?”)

Mīmāṃsā authors use the second approach. Interestingly, even a Viśiṣṭādvaitin like Veṅkaṭanātha follows the same approach. Let me mention an extreme case, that of the validity of the Pañcarātra Sacred Texts, for which Veṅkaṭanātha may be in need to grab at straws. After all, the Pañcarātra Saṃhitās are not the Vedas, nor do they appear to be directly based on the Vedas. Veṅkaṭanātha shortly mentions the argument that they are valid because they have been authored by God, but then goes looking for arguments which can be shared even by his opponents.

Is the first approach ever used? Could this distinction be used as a way to distiguish people engaging in a public discourse and people writing for other purposes (e.g., energising only a given group of people)?
Again, Veṅkaṭanātha chose to use arguments which where based on the same presuppositions as his opponents’ ones instead of saying that the Pañcarātra Saṃhitās were valid because God authored them*.

*Please notice in this connection that God can be part of a philosophical argument, e.g., in rational theology. The point here is just that Veṅkaṭanātha did not close the discussion by mentioning God.

For another way to approach the topic of distinguishing various types of texts, see this post by Jonathan Edelmann.

Comments and discussions are welcome. Be sure you are making a point and contributing to the discussion.

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5 thoughts on “Is the use of arguments from authority “irrational”?

  1. The first approach is common in Islamic theology (and obviously ubiqitous in law), that often closes a case on the basis of either Qur’an or Hadith. However, this is very often supplemented with extensive linguistic and sometimes historical discussion of the authorative statement itself and its relevance to a given debate.
    In the first chapter of al-Mawardi’s book on the Caliphate, for instance, he concludes that only members of the Quraysh tribe can be Caliphate, since a statement to that effect is attributed to Muhammad. This approach is far less common in philosophy, but may be seen in some works by Averroes. In general however, authoritative statements are usually used as arguments in support of a thesis, more often than conclusive for it by themselves alone.

  2. Accepting for a moment Isaiah Berlin’s “three baskets” of questions, empirical, formal and philosophical, then could it be argued that all rules in a formal system can be thought of as “arguments from authority?” So when we play Monopoly, we are accepting the authority of the piece of paper that has the instructions for the game.

    • yes, it is rational to accept rules as well as to accept authority in given realms. For instance, if I ask you whether your head still aches, it is very rational for me to accept your report about it (unless I have falsifying arguments, such as your being someone who tries to attract everyone’s attention by complaining about non-existing pain). (Many apologies for the delayed answer.)